Liston and Collaboration, part Two

Nov 13, 2012 | Uncategorized

I am still thinking about collaborative research after writing about the adventures of the Melba Liston Research Collective.  I spent some time this morning hunting down a few recent articles on collaborative research and writing in the humanities. Not too many, really. There’s the 2010 Deegan and McCarty collection Collaborative Research in the Digital Humanities. There were a couple that look like they will speak to the subject more generally found in a 2012 special issue of Arts and Humanities in Higher Education on the Necessity of the Humanities. These include: Collaborative Thinking: The Challenge of the Modern University by Kevin Corrigan and Collaboration in the Sciences and the Humanities: A Comparative Phenomenology by Leslie A. Real. Both authors on faculty at Emory at time of writing.  Anyway, the latter article is written from the point of view of a scientist who notes that while “humanists have often viewed the role of collaboration in research with considerable skepticism and have placed greater value on the traditional model of the solitary scholar pursuing knowledge and truth” that “asking a scientist to reflect on the nature of collaboration is much like asking a fish to reflect on the nature of water” (p. 250). Is it so stark a dichotomy as Real suggests? The article promises to explore cultural differences and consider benefits of collaborative research to the humanities. I’m looking forward to a good bit of reading and reflection tonight but I wanted to get down thoughts and observations on what Sherrie and I actually did (and why it mattered) first.

Our Improvisatory Process…

We were notified that the ‘Beyond the Solo Panel’ had been accepted in May. We both engaged in close listening of the recordings that were to be the focus of our paper and promised to exchange a few pages of initial reactions in August. These were partial, unpolished, impressionistic–but more than enough to start a conversation. A week or so later, we met via skype and just talked at first. Sometimes it was about what we had written specifically  but more often at this early stage the writing was a launch pad for additional ideas and connections. We’d both take notes as things came up. We’d break for a couple of weeks, write a few more pages (sometimes completely new, sometimes continuing on a theme from our talks or earlier writing) and then come back together via skype to share our insights and findings. As we identified and then distilled what we hoped to accomplish in the paper we gradually moved away from the “whatever comes to your head-impressionistic writing approach” and started giving each other specific assignments related to the direction(s) in which we were moving. By mid October, we had enough chunks and good ideas to draft a loose outline of an emerging argument together (in real time on skype).

We created a shared google doc and moved chunks and excerpts into outline order and began to fill in more of a narrative. We dedicated two or three long, intense sessions, with both skype and google doc windows up, to clarifying, editing, rearranging, smoothing out prose in real time–synthesizing language and perspective. Sometimes Sherrie took over the cursor and wrote and sometimes I did. We did a little more of this work at the conference including an in-person meeting in which we made the inevitable painful cuts to meet the standardized timing requirements of twenty minutes per paper.

The paper was not merely stronger than it would have been had either one of us written it alone, it was a different thing altogether that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. We found there were many strong resonances–in content and methodology–to explore and we  brought complementary areas of expertise and research and writing skills to the task (were able to shore each other up). It was not all fun and games however, they don’t exactly teach you how to do this in grad school (Not mine anyway. My thoughts flash to a classmate scratching my arm and nearly drawing blood as she violently wrested away a book we both needed for class the next morning stating how she’d been waiting long enough in crazy stage whisper. Good times.) Anyway, Sherrie and I at times struggled to find common language, we negotiated rules and etiquette of engagement, we both at various times had to release investment in particular phrases or points in service of the larger argument. This was an exercise in compromise and trust and it was definitely more work and more difficult in many ways than solitary research and writing. Worth it though, because was more fun and resulted in a better quality paper.

I will note that I think it worked because we were both excited to collaborate–we were already fans of each other’s work, had worked together before, and are each invested in exploring the potential of collaborative projects any way. I will also note that Sherrie is tenured and I currently hold a non-tenure track administrative position. Collaborative work is still undervalued in the humanities and the fact that we didn’t have to worry about whether or not this project and the resulting article would count toward tenure certainly matters. The culture around collaborative work in the humanities seems to be changing…slowly. It needs to hurry up. There are obviously situations in which solo work makes the most sense. Sherrie and I moved back and forth between modes, in fact. But the fetishization of solitary work to the point that other more social modes are automatically deemed less valuable is a symptom of a worn out, yet somehow (?!) still powerful cult of romanticized heroic genius. We are *all* more genius together.



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